Just Because: Using Couples Therapy to Tune Up a Relationship Can Make a Good Thing Even Better
Relationship therapy can benefit couples in life’s later seasons. Photo: Delmaine Donson/Getty Images
Commitment ceremony? Meditation retreat? Weekend in the Niagara wine region? My husband and I wanted to do something special for our 25th anniversary, but none of those options felt quite right. Instead, we chose couples therapy.
A friend gave me a thumbs-up for the decision, but not without adding, “Are you guys okay?” More than okay, I assured her. Drew and I spent all our waking hours at home together – retired in his case, self-employed in mine – and never got tired of each other. We laughed a lot, gave each other back rubs and shared crossword puzzles. “So, what will you talk about in therapy?” my friend asked. In truth, I had no idea. The adventure lay in finding out.
Like so many others, she assumed couples don’t consult a therapist unless they’re facing a crisis, or at least an issue. She wasn’t wrong. The Seattle-based Gottman Institute, known for nearly five decades of research on marriage, suggests therapy when conflicts arise around trust, intimacy, communication, money and parenting: all serious stressors that can easily tear a couple apart. Hop online, and you’ll see similar lists from other institutions and therapists. “Just because,” or to make a good thing even better, rarely appears on any of these lists.
“It’s unusual to see couples in healthy relationships who do therapy for the sole purpose of building intimacy,” says Dr. Molly Burrets, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist who has been treating couples for 15 years, and serves as associate editor for the Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. She attributes this reluctance, in part, to popular culture, “which still portrays couples therapy as something you do as a last-ditch effort to save a relationship.” There’s also “a stigma around it, because of the pressure to maintain appearances about the relationship.” This had never occurred to me. Perhaps, at 65, I no longer cared about such things, and evidently Drew didn’t either.
The first therapist we consulted looked about the same age as our two children, both in their mid-20s. Nothing wrong with a younger therapist, of course, but this one seemed to be reading from a checklist, rather than engaging us as individuals. We hit the jackpot with our second choice, Toronto psychotherapist Claire Watson. She chose her words carefully, and had a way of listening that made my husband and I feel heard. Most importantly, she never took sides.
In our first session, Drew spoke about his retirement. Despite acting in a community theatre troupe and serving on its board of directors, he had a nagging sense he could be doing more with his time. “Why don’t you talk to me about all this?” I piped in. Tears sprang to his eyes, and then mine, as he admitted that he didn’t feel “worthy” of dumping his troubles on me. Well, this was wild: our first “just because” session and we were both crying. But they were good tears, dissolving the cloak of silence we had unconsciously thrown over the topic.
Our next session dredged up an incident from more than a decade earlier, when I had suggested to Drew that we make a list of things we loved about each other to ring in the new year. I got busy writing, while Drew’s hand froze above his notepad. Not a single item? Really? The next day, he greeted me with a sheepish face and a list of heartwarming statements about me, which he read out loud. “So you’re a fast processor and Drew is a slow processor,” Watson said after I shared the story. “You can count on his feedback. You just need to give him more time.” Everything clicked into place – Drew’s long pauses, his confusion at some of my questions and the deer-in-the-headlights look when he was put on the spot. He was a slow processor, that was all. It was a part of him, just like being six-foot-two.
Next up was travel: I loved visiting far-flung places with exotic foods and languages, while Drew preferred more familiar territory, like Scotland or France. Claire’s probing, open-ended questions steered us toward a fresh solution: We could spend a month or two in a city we both loved, such as Edinburgh, while I took short side trips to Prague or Athens as the mood struck. That third session felt like the end of a good meal: We were done here, our anniversary gift unwrapped and fully savoured.
Everyone’s “just because” looks a little different. For Beth-Anne (a pseudonym) and her husband, the decision to seek couples therapy sprang from a case of the midlife blahs. Now 73, the Toronto journalist recalls the unexpected “mental exhaustion” that came upon her more than two decades ago, when the death of a parent, a child’s imminent departure to university and career disenchantment converged on her life. “Everything was happening all at once, all these endings. … We both felt the need for a change.”
The pair saw a therapist about a dozen times over a six-month period. Every session ended with a homework assignment, such as planning and going on a date. But the game changer happened right in the therapist’s office. “She got us to remember and articulate what attracted us to each other,” Beth-Anne says. “Pretty soon, we’re nodding and laughing and the whole energy in the room shifts.” And when the therapist “told us we were unusually well matched, it made me see my husband in a new way.”
Frances Kinloch, a sex and relationship therapist in Victoria, has seen other couples who fit this mould: not dissatisfied, but not deeply satisfied, either. “They don’t want to break up – they think very highly of each other – they just know something is missing.” It often boils down to wanting more of certain things: more fun, more conversation, more intimacy. And how can therapy make this happen? “The decision to do couples therapy is in itself an act of intimacy,” Kinloch says, adding that “therapy allows couples to hold space for their differences in a safe environment. Most of us don’t get a lot of moments like that in our lives.”
A safe exploration of differences is exactly what Mary Robertson, 52, hopes to get from therapy with her partner of eight years. “I’m extroverted and a bit of a drama queen,” the Montreal graphic designer says, with a laugh. “He’s the opposite. He never complains. We work really well together, but I want to make sure it doesn’t become a problem between us.” She presented couples therapy to him as “getting a tune-up, and it immediately clicked – he’s a big car person. As soon as our home renovations are done, we plan to get started.”
The right time to explore couples therapy is, well, any time. It may seem counterintuitive to consult a therapist for no good reason, but Arkansas psychologist and podcaster Dr. Margaret Rutherford, who has counselled couples for more than 25 years, encourages people to think of it as preserving the health of a relationship. “You know what they say about an ounce of prevention, and it certainly holds true for couples therapy,” Rutherford says. In her experience, “couples who come in before a destructive pattern has developed get better results than those who wait.”
Same-sex couples may have an even easier time of it, as research from the Gottman Institute suggests they get more out of therapy – and achieve results more quickly – than their straight counterparts.
What if your partner doesn’t share your enthusiasm for the idea? While Kinloch avoids counselling people who “totally resist therapy,” she says it’s typical for one partner to have some reservations about the process. For example, “some people are afraid the therapist will insist on excavating what happened at age three. I tell them we don’t need to go there, that exploring the here and now is valuable in itself.”
Watson, our therapist, expects exploratory therapy to become more common over the next decade. “The concept of prevention has taken off over the past 30 years, and we’re beginning to apply it to mental as well as physical health,” she notes. And as our population continues to age, “mental health in older adults is getting our attention. Thriving and growing as a couple is part of that.”
Some couples, after reaching midlife with their relationship intact, may conclude they can figure things out on their own, but Watson maintains that relationship therapy offers unique rewards in life’s later seasons. Questions she encourages older couples to explore include: What will give us purpose in the next phase of our lives? How do we want to be together? What might we want to do separately? What fears do we have about aging? And for couples with children: Who are we to each other beyond raising the kids?
It’s never too late to ask these questions. The exercise rewarded me so much in my 60s that I look forward to doing it again when I’m 70. And maybe 80. On the other hand, Drew and I may be having too much fun in our Edinburgh flat to consider another round of therapy. I have Watson to thank for that mental image.
A version of this article appeared in the Aug/Sept 2023 issue with the headline ‘Just Because’, p. 78.